Wildlife Communities

Have you ever thought about where the animals live? You won’t find every kind of animal just anywhere. Most animals have a specific natural environment in which they thrive, called a habitat. Unique habitats develop on the landscape from distinct interactions of bedrock, soils, hydrology, plant communities, and human impact. Hence we have rocky ledges in some places, marshy lowland swamps in others, dense forests with cavity trees, open farm fields, and manicured backyards – together providing a variety of settings in which different animals can make their homes.

Let’s consider a few animals that dwell in Dummerston. Skunks, for example, rummage for insects, rodents, and garbage in the open farm lands and suburban areas right around human settlements. Gray squirrels are familiar friends in forest areas or open parks that contain nut-producing trees like oaks, hickories, and walnuts; they cache winter food in several small hoards, possibly helping spread the seeds of many trees. Deer can be spied nibbling the tender shoots of your garden on a cool summer morning. And of course there are the resident and migrant songbirds, which perch high and low in dense woodlands, the edges of fields, out in open meadows, and venture to our backyard feeders just beyond the house.

Wetland areas, too, like the streams, rivers, and ponds interspersed throughout town serve as important sources of food and drinking water for a wide diversity of creatures. Sizeable trout as well as pike, perch, and thanks to recent restoration efforts, Atlantic salmon, can be found in the West and Connecticut Rivers. During the breeding season, water fowl such as Canada geese and wood ducks migrate to the shores of ponds and forested wetlands. And beavers busy themselves by damning waterways. On a smaller scale, the water that collects in small upland depressions provides great vernal pool habitat for an assortment of woodland amphibians like salamanders and wood frogs, as well as insects.

What about the ways animals move? Have you ever tried to walk like a black bear, bound through the snow like a weasel, or slither across the ground like a snake? Can you lie motionless like a butterfly? How about flying like a robin? That’s a tough one. It’s rare that we try and imitate the movements of the animals that surround us. Yet, as you probably have observed, animals are mobile creatures. For some, such as the slug, crossing the road may seem like an epic journey. Others, like the moose, fisher cat, coyote, and black bear can range wide and far across great tracks of land on a daily basis. An adult male black bear, in fact, has a home range that covers between 40,000 and 100,000 acres – an area two to five times greater than the town of Dummerston! However, due to human land use patterns, the countryside is frequently fragmented into a patchwork of forests, fields, and man-made dwellings, leaving suitable wildlife habitat scattered about as isolated islands. Where possible, larger mammals like bears travel between one patch of habitat and the next along pathways called corridors – strips of contiguous forest cover like those along riverbanks and farm lots that criss-cross the land. These corridors are essential in enabling animals to move across the landscape and encounter the habitats they need for feeding, migrating, mating, and even resting. Despite the presence of corridors, many developments, like major roadways such as Routes 5 and 30, and Interstate 91, serve as barriers to migration for animals large and small, which can lead to local extinction of populations. A look at a map of the undeveloped areas in town reveals that the best core habitat and corridors for wildlife lie in chunks to the west of the West River, to the north and south of East-West Road, and where Dutton Pines State Park flanks Route 5 along the Connecticut River.

Lastly, any discussion of wildlife would not be complete without a quick mention of the fact that animal populations in New England have not always been static. Species abundance and distribution have changed in the past, and continue to change today, as habitat patterns adjust to the ever-present effects of natural and human influence.